On Murdering 22,000 Darlings

From WriterUnboxed:

One learns a lot about one’s writing habits—and oneself—when cutting almost 19 percent of a manuscript, paring it from 119,000 words (476 pages) to 97,000 words (409 pages).

Mind you, this wasn’t a first draft—it had been reviewed twice by a Zoe Quinton, a developmental editor I very much respect and trust (and whom I interviewed here at Writer Unboxed). After our work together, she said:

“SO well done. I’m blown away by the amount of work you did, and how well you integrated all the pieces together to form a truly stunning, gripping whole. I loved every minute of it, and nearly cried at the end, even knowing what the basic setup would be. You’ve got a hell of a book here, one of the best I’ve ever worked on. Bravo.”

Once I began submitting to agents, however, with the exception of two agents I’ll discuss shortly, I either heard nothing back or got the seldom helpful, “Not for me, good luck with it elsewhere.” The two agents who provided some feedback said two very different but very helpful things. (It’s currently under submission with two other agents, one of who seems particularly receptive.)

The first of the two agents who provided notes complimented my writing but remarked that my use of a gay, bi-racial (Cambodian/African American) woman main character made the book virtually impossible to sell in today’s cultural environment given the #mystory movement.

The second agent, despite liking a great deal about the book, comparing it at one point to American Gods, felt a lack of “narrative urgency” in the writing.

In discussing all this with Zoe, she responded that my female character’s sexuality and race had raised no reds flags for her, and she is sensitive to such things. She also found comparing the book to American Gods then bemoaning a lack of narrative urgency puzzling, as Neil Gaiman’s novel is hardly a full-throttle page turner, but shares some of the philosophical, mythical, and historical texture of my book.

Let me be clear: I in no way fault Zoe for the extensive post-edit rewrite I ended up conducting. Her job was to read the book, note its shortfalls as she saw them, help me correct them, while at the same time being conscientious of what she saw as my voice, my style, and the type of book I seemed to want to be writing—a big, sprawling, dystopian journey covering a great deal of the American landscape with a mythical backdrop.

But given my respect for the two agents who gave me notes, I felt obliged to pay attention to what they were telling me.

On reflection, making my female main character Irish-American and heterosexual not only didn’t present an overwhelming obstacle, it actually made better sense. The story concerns how a book she slaved over—a class project for a professor who was also her lover—got stolen from her when she went into an emotional tailspin after the professor cruelly broke things off. The book she created concerned Irish myth—which makes a heck of a lot more sense with someone of Irish heritage.

I wrote the character as originally conceived because the story takes place during a race war here in the U.S., and she represents exactly the multicultural/multi-racial component to our country that I want to champion and defend. But I realized I simply had to find other ways to make that point.

So that part of the rewrite seemed straightforward. Once I began reworking that aspect of the story, however, I began to realize that the other agent was also correct.

There was simply far too much needless description, excessive commentary, and just plain clutter, along with unnecessary or dramatically flat scenes—all of which I had slaved over, but which I now saw as in need of serious rewriting or just the old heave-ho.

And the more I cut, the more I comfortable I got with the paring. And the more comfortable I got with trimming, the more alert I became to what qualified for removal.

In his writing guide Best Words, Best Order, the poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns talks about honesty in the context of recognizing what is necessary and what is unnecessary in a piece of writing. He describes how, when several of his early mysteries were reissued and he had a chance to revisit them, he became dismayed at how much excess writing they contained, and was happy to have the chance to cut some of that away. He’d tried very hard to make the originals as lean as possible, and at the time believed he’d done so, but clearly he’d also allowed himself some puffery he now recognized as self-indulgent.

Link to the rest at WriterUnboxed

8 thoughts on “On Murdering 22,000 Darlings”

  1. This is what happens when a writer does not understand that Writing is Just Writing. Stories are Just Stories. What one reader (or editor or agent) likes another reader (or editor or agent) won’t, and (even) your opinion of your work as the author is still only one opinion. Just write the story, publish it, and let the readers decide.

    • One of the advantages of Indie, inc, is that the market decides.
      Not beta readers, agents, editors, or pundits.

    • That’s like saying “just cross the road. If you don’t get run down, you’re safe.”

      Many times readers reach the end of such a book and say, sometimes in reviews, that 22,000 (or however many) words could certainly have been eliminated and made it a much better book.

      The reader doesn’t get a chance to decide until it’s too late – they are done reading (or have given up.)

      Thus, just as with mechanical systems and software, the book should be ‘tested’, and perhaps by someone who does this for a living and is aware of the needs involved.

      • With respect, first, you are laboring under possibly the most prevalent myth of all the myths about writing fiction: That all potential readers will like what a particular agent or editor or publisher likes.

        Second, your comparison doesn’t stand up. A mechanical system or software are ostensibly important. A novel, on the other hand, is just a story, nothing but a few hours’ entertainment.

        What about all the readers who do NOT believe those words should be cut? Or who might have enjoyed the story in its original form back before it was rewritten so much to please other people that the original authorial voice is gone?

        Anyone who sets out to “find” something in any story that needs to be “fixed” will do so. But most readers don’t do that. Most readers simply expect to be entertained. Those, not some critic, are the audience for my westerns, SF, crime and action-adventure stories and novels.

        Then again, if you’re a writer, do whatever works for you. Won’t affect my bottom line.

        I will continue to tell the story my characters give me. After all, they, not I, are living it. I trust my creative subconscious enough not to second guess it with my own critical mind, never mind allowing others’ critical minds into the mix.

        And I’m just not arrogant enough to pre-judge what other readers will like or dislike or to force my personal tastes on them. If readers are involved in actively considering how many words should be cut (or any other writing considerations), then they aren’t engaged in the story anyway, and that is the writer’s fault.

        • Exactly.
          There is no universal standard of likeability for books. No magic bullet.

          Every commercial book is a niche product, even within its genre. Nothing the author can do will ensure absolute success. Every book will succeed to some extent and fail to a larger extent. It doesn’t matter if your name is King, Rowling, or Debut author. Some will like, many will dislike.

          Success will be a function of the story and the author’s skill, not the “doctors” brought in to homogenize it.

          What trad pub story doctors do is align it with the publisher’s vision of what *they* think they can sell. Authors are free to go along with this if they don’t trust themselves or aren’t terribly attached to their own vision. It works for some but more often than not what gets lost is the work’s individuality and the author’s personal narratve voice.

          A friend of mine recently coined the term “playpub” to refer to self publishers who, rather than bother to learn the process and rules of going Indie properly, graft the tradpub process onto their project, as the OP shows. By the time they’re done the final product bears no resemblance to the original vision, carries the worst aspects of both tradpub and Indiepub and, worse of all, the author never learns how or why Indie publishing works nor who they are as authors.

          The latter is the biggest problem they inflict on themselves.

          Today’s book world is nothing like the myth of the olden days; there’s millions of books out there and it’s hard enough to stand out and get sampled and as in the outside world you only get one chance to make a first impression. The worst thing an author can do these days is to make their product generic and kill any chance of creating a connection with readers for follow up stories.

          All we have to do is look at the truly successful Indies who have built careers; the one thing they all have is a distinctive, *personal* style and focus. They have a brand and a following based on it. Going lowest-common-denominator is the surest path to failure.

          • Felix, obviously, I agree. And what you said is borne out in my own experience with over 60 novels and over 200 short stories. What works, works. What doesn’t, doesn’t. And it’s all up to the individual reader regardless of what any other individual reader thinks about the work.

  2. I make Cowboy Coffee by throwing the ground coffee in a pot and boiling the water. Dump in some cold water to sink the grounds. Pour. Drink. I think it’s great. I put everything I have into it. Some people agree, and think it sucks. What shall I do?

  3. He made every possible mistake.

    – He let too many people into the room while he was writing the book.

    – He manufactured a character based on a bizarre demographic without realizing that he would be attacked for not being that demographic.

    – Somehow he got the opinion of a bunch of agents that did not take him on as a client, then did what those agents said to do. Yikes!

    – No matter how good his “developmental editor” is, he has to learn to make his own mistakes(See Larry Niven. He never learned to write clean copy, thus his Early books are great(because he was edited), his Later books need to go through the typewriter one more time(because he uses a stamp with STET in red ink, refusing to be edited, glug!).)

    He also wrote without any balance for what the end product should be. Art is about limits(Yeah, I know the irony of me saying that.)

    He needs to take what he has, lay out a story to a set length, and tell that story cleanly. If he’s lucky he has a multi-book series that can take the reader on a journey, but he has to be in control at some level.

    It’s like growing cauliflower. If you let it grow too long it starts to bloom and go to seed.

    Good Cauliflower, Bad Cauliflower
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wr9d22i1HGU

    BTW, I miss cauliflower. There was an Indian place and a Tibetan place — before the pandemic — that served great cauliflower and I have not had it for over a year. Don’t get me wrong, I fix great food here at home, but I need to eat someone else’s cooking before I go mad. Sigh.

    Be that as it may, the actual article is a great example of what not to do, sadly I doubt that he will learn from his mistakes.

    This goes into my On Writing folder.

    Thanks…

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